Performing Arts - Erotica in motion
by Anupama Bhattacharya
Chandralekha, legendary dancer from
south India, discards the devotional elements of dance for passionate,
body-oriented movements. And the effect is electrifying
What would you call a dancer who is iconoclastic? Who
exudes raw power and pathos, the earthy and the sublime simultaneously?
Who unites Bharatanatyam, yoga and kalarippayyat in a single mind-blowing step? Chandralekha,
You can't escape the charm. Silver hair. Dark kohl-rimmed eyes. A bright
vermilion dot on the forehead. There is motion in the deep lines of her
face—smiling this instant, frowning the next.
Not that it makes any difference. When you meet Chandralekha, all you
notice are the fiery eyes, throbbing with restrained power in her lithe
body. Dancer she definitely is—it ripples around her as she moves.
Student of renowned Bharatnatyam teacher, Guru Kancheepuram Ellappa Pillai,
Chennai-based dancer-choreographer Chandralekha has been known for reinterpreting
classical traditions in dance and developing a unique sequence of signature
movements. You can't mistake a Chandralekha composition. Stark sets, often
set off by a single object—giant projection of a blinking eye, geometrical
figures, a Shiva lingam, a scarlet rectangle representing the universal
menstrual flow of creation. All these while her troupe of male and female
dancers position themselves in intimate postures.
It could be called obscene but for the masterly execution of each step,
the subtle beauty of restrained erotica. In Yantra, inspired by
Adi Shankaracharya's Soundaryalahiri and appropriately subtitled
'dance diagrams', the perception of beauty is related to an awareness
of the body, both in its spiritual and sexual manifestations, and is expressed
through geometrical patterns created by the dancers, signifying male and
is also a definite feminism in Chandralekha's themes. Her 1991 production
Sri explores the multifaceted significance of womanhood in India—from
Harappan fertility images, Shakti and unity of Prakriti
and Purusha to oppressed woman and the woman of the new millennium,
the ten-armed Durga.
If Shakti is there, can Mahakaal be far behind? The year 1995 saw Chandralekha
invoking time in Mahakaal, a symposium of convoluted movements
that went beyond linear notions of time to explore the dance of timelessness,
inner space and consciousness. This could be considered the most metaphysical
of her productions: the dancer-choreographer experimented with intangible
themes such as the beginning of creation with the cosmic sound, awareness
of life and the eternal pulse that alone remains and continues between
the cessation and birth of subsequent worlds.
Chandralekha, a dancing legend in the '50s, moved away from the
performing scene after a decade of success, rejecting the sublimated
brahminical content of post-Natyashastra
dance and its market entertainment value. During this period,
herself with writing, designing, multimedia projects and women's
rights movement. Her return to the stage was marked by the East
Encounter in 1984 in Bombay, western India, where she presented
of her productions with the help of students from Kalakshetra.
You can't stop a tornado once it sets its course. Chandralekha's return
took her all over the world—from Moscow to London, Italy, Germany,
Toronto, New York and Tokyo—stunning the audience with fiercely sensual
and intensely iconoclastic productions. For Chandralekha, dance is not
bhakti or a sacred tradition meant only to invoke gods. It is a
passionate, self-exploratory expression of the earthy, the erotic and
the elemental. Which is why, unlike other classical dancers, Chandralekha
never does the traditional pranam before her performances.
Inevitably, she has had her share of criticism. The boldness of her vision,
often delving into the most intimate aspects of the human psyche, drew
scathing attacks. Especially so for her production Raga: In Search
takes you by surprise. It lifts you by your imagination, sways somewhere
in the twilight of confusion and leaves the mark of ennui on a stark,
bold and often explicitly erotic presentation. Here, two bare-chested
male dancers, apparently seeking the female within, entwine in homoerotic,
no-holds-barred postures while a chanting of 'Ardhanarishwara'
echoes in the background. All this while, a group of female dancers pant
and peek at the intimate caresses, often partaking in the mock coitus.
The problem is, the fire burns out too soon. Wavering between fiery earthiness
and repetitive languidity, Raga is a statement in contrast. No
metaphysics here, not even a linear theme. The dancer-choreographer seems
to be content with exploring the primal essence of sensation. Perhaps
that's her way of looking within—into the deep bowels of the earth—and
seek out the hidden, the untouched.
The high priestess of the sensate, however, has a strong sense of propriety
when it comes to her troupe. "Please use your discretion when you take
photographs," she says politely yet firmly as we watch a rehearsal where
the dancers, not in costume, often get their clothes disarrayed through
various yogic postures. Then she flits around like a sprite, now demonstrating
a dance step, now warmly patting the hand of a favorite student. But,
all the while, keeping a sharp eye on the reporters and photographers
thronging the auditorium.
Chandralekha is a legend. Loved, hated, admired, criticized. You could brand her work obscene,
or revere her can't forget her. Somewhere, those intensely alive eyes
in a face well past its prime leave their mark. Much like the embers
that remain long after the fire is gone.